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Tossing the First Lady's Lunch

Districts shun federal funds so they can stop serving food kids hate
Obama chooses a la carte items at a Virginia school
Obama chooses a la carte items at a Virginia schoolPhotograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

As superintendent of the Fort Thomas Independent School District in northern Kentucky, Gene Kirchner oversees 3,000 students who buy about 1,400 cafeteria lunches each day. At least they used to. Since federal school lunch nutrition requirements championed by Michelle Obama began phasing in over the past two years, Kirchner has noticed kids don’t buy lunch so much anymore. Last school year, Fort Thomas sold about 30,000 fewer meals than the year before. The problem is particularly acute at the high school level. “They’re just skipping lunch and stopping by the minimart on the way home instead,” Kirchner says. “And when they do buy a lunch, they go by the trash can and throw half of it away.”

The National School Lunch Program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, reimburses public schools 30¢ for each paid lunch and $3 for each free one. To get the money, schools must abide by the government’s new limits on calories (750 to 850 for high schools, roughly the amount in a deli sandwich and a bag of chips); saturated fat (less than 10 percent of total calories, so there go the chips); and, starting this year, sodium (1,420 milligrams, reduced to 740 mg by 2022—or about a dill pickle’s worth). Salisbury steak, pizza, and chicken nuggets are giving way to lean meats, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.